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July 25, 2007

Princeton Art Museum and its Collection “Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest”

Filed under: Toast Master — Tags: — Fei @ 8:32 pm

Disclaimer: This speech is solely for the fun of toast master international speech. The stories may not be historically accurate, nor is impartial. Please listen with discretion.

Thanks Mr. Toast Master. Fellow Toast Masters, and honored guests. Do you know if you have a bank of America card, you could go to any museum for free last May? Heh? Sorry, it’s too late now… I, actually took advantage of that and went to San Francisco MOMA and de Young…Want to know how I felt? Disappointment. Don’t make me wrong. It has nothing to do with the museums. Those museums are fine museums. They have fairly good art works. The problem is, of course, always me. I visited museums in the wrong order. You know I came from greater New York City area and they have the finest museums in the world: Metropolitan, natural history, NY MOMA. Basically I need to reverse the sequence of museums to visit. I should visit San Francisco museums first, and NY museums later.
But today I’m not going to talk about NY museums. I want to talk about Princeton art museum. It is a nice little museum, even in the middle of all NY museums. Of course its collections cannot be compared with Metropolitan, but to me, they are at least at the same level as de Young. Princeton art museum resides in the middle of Princeton campus. It has no admission fee, very important. The museum is free to the students, to the faculty, and to the public… it is much better than the small museum in Cambridge, where you have to pay like five dollars to get in… and I don’t even know what’s inside…

Because I’m Chinese, I’m especially interested in Chinese collections. Today, I want to describe to you my favourite collection. It is the calligraphy from Wang Xizhi. Wang lived in Dong Jin dynasty, which is about 300 AD, 1700 years ago. Wang is considered the greatest calligrapher of all times in China. He transformed writing from merely a means of recording words to a piece of art. From the way he wrote the characters, you can feel his emotions, feel his personality. The specific collection, as you can see at your hand, is the first half of a personal letter, only fifteen characters. It is called “Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest”. What do you feel from the characters? exciting? happy? sorrow? or bitter? well, if you are like me, an ordinary person… you don’t really know… I don’t know a thing about calligraphy… I don’t even know whether it’s good or not… hmm… that’s not exactly true, I can tell if it’s really really bad… but I cannot tell better from good… However, if everyone else says it’s good, it’s got to be good. That is actually how Wang Xizhi became the greatest calligrapher.

Ritual in Goog Harvest

Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest

I… have to confess, I actually just lied to you. Have you noticed that? The Princeton collection is not a real letter by Wang Xizhi. It’s a fake one, but it’s a very early fake one. It was faked in the 7th century, only three hundred years after Wang’s era. The way they fake it, is to put a piece of paper on the supposedly authentic Wang’s letter, and trace the exact way Wang wrote the characters. We call it, a tracing copy. I assure you, even though it is fake, it is very precious. That is only because no authentic Wang’s calligraphy exists in the world today. And there’s a story behind it. Remember I told you that Wang is the greatest calligrapher because everyone else says so? right? From 4th century to 7th century, lots of people did see Wang’s authentic calligraphy, and they highly value that. They would spend a lot of money just to get a real piece of Wang’s handwriting. At the end of 7th century, the emperor of China became so interested in Wang’s calligraphy, that he ordered everyone in the country to hand in Wang’s work, otherwise he would be beheaded. So, he became the only person that had the entire collection. When he died, he did one step further. He put every single piece in his tomb, so he could enjoy it in the underworld. After that… nobody … has ever seen a real piece of Wang’s calligraphy. But everybody heard from their predecessors that Wang was the greatest calligrapher, so he is… As a side effect, the fake ones became precious.

So, you see.. when you see a museum collection, if you don’t know the history, don’t know the stories behind it.. it is just an ordinary collection. You will get a lot more, if you spend a little bit of time, do some research. And your museum visiting experience will be much more exciting.

My first Princeton art museum visit was in an activity hosted by the art museum. Its central theme was this letter by Wang Xizhi. A guide described all the background information about this letter, pretty much like what I just told you. After that, we had a reception INSIDE the museum. A small Chinese musical group played some ancient Chinese instruments inside the main room. Think about it, you can listen to the beautiful music, enjoy the wonderful collections around you, and taste the high quality finger food. And remember, everything… is… absolutely… FREE…. Can you find any other museum in the world do the same thing?

Trust me, Princeton art museum is very unique. If you go to Princeton, don’t forget to go to the art museum. And don’t forget to see this calligraphy: “Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest”.

Mr. Toast Master…

Time: 6 minutes 27 seconds
Date: 07/25/2007


  1.  你的这些演讲事先怎么准备?列提纲,还是把整个内容都写下来?如果不是背稿,讲的时候难道不会即时发挥说得与想的不相同?特别是细节上?

    Comment by mv0 — August 2, 2007 @ 2:36 pm

  2. I wish I  could improvise… write now I just write everything down and try to remember it… it doesn’t matter whether I speak the same as the script… as long as the listeners do not notice… actually in both of my speeches, I said something different… so what you see here is just my script… 😉

    Comment by sf_wind — August 3, 2007 @ 12:24 am

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